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A Fireside Chat With Lew Tabackin

By Published: April 4, 2003

LT: I don't think that tradition is ever a burden. I think tradition is an asset because nothing comes out of nowhere. Anything of value doesn't just come out of nowhere. Charlie Parker didn't come out of nowhere. Even Ornette Coleman, who was a revolutionary in a sense, didn't come out of nowhere. We all carry the tradition. It is just how you absorb the tradition and make it yours. You find your voice through absorbing the tradition and the more you know, the more you have absorbed, the more you can create. When I was very young, I used to say that I was going to try something really different and see if I could be the next great innovator and it didn't take long to realize that that was not the way to go. Innovation is something that comes out of an evolution. It is more of an evolving thing than a radical thing. That is how I feel about it. The players that hit me are usually the players that actually understand the tradition. There are a lot of 'avant-garde' musicians that dabble in the tradition and they usually screw it up and they haven't really worked hard enough at understanding where everything comes from.

FJ: When did you begin your collaborations with Toshiko Akiyoshi?

LT: We met in '67. I was playing in Clark Terry's band. It was kind of an all-star band that I got into. I was one of the few un-all-stars. I was in the band and Toshiko was subbing for the regular pianist, Don Friedman, and she was looking for a tenor player to play her concert. She had Joe Farrell and Joe couldn't do it and then she heard me and said that I was the guy she wanted for her Town Hall concert. So that is how we met. The strange part about it is that I didn't do her concert. I went to California with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn't make her concert, but I guess she didn't hold it against me too badly. Once in a while, she brings it up even to this day. Toshiko has an elephant's memory when it comes to stuff like that. Anyway, it is kind of a joke. It has been an ongoing joke for all these years. Later on, she had some small group gigs and she called me to do and we had some projects that we did and that is how we started out. The first gigs that I did with her, there were no arrangements involved. We just played. But then, she wrote a lot of music for her trios in the old days and then she started to write some quartet music. In fact, we used to get together fairly regularly with rhythm sections and she would bring in some arrangements that we would play. Eventually, we did a recording with the quintet with Kenny Dorham, where she wrote most of the music.

In a way, some of the stuff in the big band is an extension of that. So she is very compositional. I think she always was. When she was a trio player, she was very compositional. She listened to a lot of Bud Powell and he was too. His compositions are quite remarkable. The big band thing was basically, almost an accident. When she did the Town Hall concert in '67 that I didn't make, she wrote three or four arrangements for big band and the concert consisted of solo, duo, trio, big band, something like that. So when we moved to Los Angeles in '72, people were calling me to play in their rehearsal bands and most of them were pretty boring and I just didn't find them interesting. So I just offhandedly mentioned to Toshiko that I knew she had a few charts that she wrote for the concert, maybe I would get some guys together and we would just play for fun. We started rehearsing at the musicians union in Los Angeles, Local 47. I think in those days, it was fifty cents and hour or three hours. I don't remember, but it was nothing. We started doing it and we had all kinds of people come in and out of the band. Some guys couldn't relate to the music and other considered it a challenge. We kept on doing it. It was ten in the morning on Wednesdays. It was quite interesting. She started to write more stuff and before you knew it, we had music to play and we started to get the personnel that made sense and that was the beginning. But it was never meant to be a real working band. It was just something to do like a workshop. It snowballed. You are in Los Angeles right, Fred?

FJ: I am.

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